Young, dead and dealing with the consequences

by Mark Schilling

Special to The Japan Times

A veteran director of feature episodes in the classic “Ultraman” tokusatsu (special effects) series, Kazuya Konaka may not be the most obvious choice for a drama about teen suicide, but a look at his filmography, including 1998′s “Nazo no Tenkosei (The Dimension Travelers)” and 2008′s “Tokyo Shojo (Tokyo Girl),” reveals a long-standing interest in seishun eiga (youth films) with a supernatural twist and serious bent.

His latest film, “Seki Seki Ren Ren (Deep Red Love),” began from a collaboration with novelist/scriptwriter Minato Shukawa on the “Ultraman Mebius” show, for which Shukawa wrote three scripts, of which Konaka directed two.

“That was about seven years ago — he was a fan of the tokusatsu genre,” Konaka tells The Japan Times at a preview screening of his film in Tokyo. “After that I was offered a chance to make a film based on his novel,” “Seki Seki Ren Ren,” published in 2006.

While admiring the novel, despite its downbeat ending, Konaka wanted to make a film that “would be different in its worldview, that would leave (viewers) with something redemptive.”

“The book is told in the first person,” he explains. “The heroine, Juri, has turned her back on the world and resents it. In the book she’s pretty misanthropic. In the film, though, she’s more upbeat, because when a character is physically portrayed by an actor, you can make her more complex. That is, Juri appears upbeat but she secretly resents the world and betrays her friend.”

Since Konaka’s concept of the film’s “difference” includes its climax, I will not detail it here, only that Juri (Tao Tsuchiya), who remains in the world of the living after committing suicide, acquires a new sympathy for her still-grieving mother. “It’s not in the original story, but I thought it was important to include that sort of element,” Konaka says.

One reason for the greater emphasis on the mother-daughter relationship was Konaka’s own research for the film, which made him acquainted with support groups for the families of suicide victims and inspired him to include one in the film. “It’s good to have a support group who understands what you went through,” Konaka comments. “It allows you to be more honest about your feelings and helps alleviate the pain of grief.”

Rather than dwell on the suicide itself, Konaka observes, members of these groups “try to look back on more positive aspects of the (deceased) person’s life, to remember the good times they had together.”

In the same way, Konaka wanted to avoid the stereotype of the suicidal teenager as severely bullied or mentally ill. “Juri is basically an active and positive girl, but the flip side is that her sociable nature creates more opportunities for her to betray her friends, such as the time she destroys her friend’s love letter out of jealousy,” Konaka says. “That opens up the path of self-hate and distances her from her friends. Her isolation escalates until she commits suicide.”

This, he emphasizes, is not a rare case: “Even for a girl like (Tao) Tsuchiya, this scenario is within the realm of possibility,” he says. “When you’re young, any number of things can set off suicidal thoughts. Death is taken lightly. Kids who seem normal can commit suicide because of minor incidents.”

The film’s mushi otoko (bug men), flying demons who urge the lonely and depressed to kill themselves, he adds, dramatize how “suicide can happen to anyone.”

“They’re also in the novel, but in the film they’re somewhat different,” Konaka comments. “They say the words that can send people over the edge. Juri can’t beat them, though she hates them.” Her futile battles, he adds, “express how difficult it can be to stop someone who wants to commit suicide.”

Suicide victims, Konaka notes, often get little sympathy and are blamed for their own actions. “By including creatures like the bug men, the possibility of suicide extends to everyone,” he says. “Suicide is like depression or an illness. An outsider might wonder why anyone would kill themselves over some apparently minor thing. But for suicide victims it’s like an illness in which they become fixated on one thing. The bug men are a metaphor for that.”

Tsuchiya, Konaka says, was his first choice for the challenging role of Juri. “I first saw her playing the heroine in an ‘Ultraman’ three or four years ago — one I didn’t direct — and thought she was a good actress,” he explains. “Then I saw her again in the ‘Suzuki Sensei’ TV series and her acting abilities had improved.”

More than him guiding Tsuchiya in the role, Konaka says, “We thought it through together. I would ask her, ‘How would you play this in the script?’ and she would give me her ideas,” he explains. Another point of reference for the director was his own teenage daughter: “She reminded me what it was like to be one of these young characters,” he says.

Cinematically, Konaka’s biggest influence was the 1987 Wim Wenders film “Wings of Desire.” “The angels in that film watch over humans but they can’t be seen by them and can’t directly communicate with them,” he says. “I liked that concept and borrowed it for (my film).”

Whether or not “Seki Seki Ren Ren” becomes an international hit like “Wings of Desire,” Konaka believes that the issue it addresses — the distressingly large number of youth suicides — is not limited to Japan or the Japanese. “It’s a universal problem,” he says. “As much as possible, I’d like audiences abroad to see the film.”